Earlier tonight I participated in a local story telling event called Tell Us Something that is put together every few months here in town. Anyone is welcome to tell a story and basically all you have to do is email the folks who put these gatherings together beforehand and ask to be signed up. There’s no auditioning and the only requirements are that it has to be a true personal story and when you perform your piece you can’t have any notes with you. Each event also has a theme for which your story must be based on and tonight’s was Perception – a great buddhist topic eh?
By sheer happenstance I wound up being the only female signed up to go on stage tonight to tell a story. The venue was at a local bar that had been recently renovated called the Top Hat and the place was packed when I arrived. I was pretty nervous and while I had questioned whether having friends there would be supportive or cause me to be more nervous I did let some folks know about it and announced it at my sangha last night. A nice showing of sangha friends came out for which I was very grateful for. There were 12 of us story tellers that went on tonight and we were each given 10 minutes to fill. The host sets up a count down timer and then sounds a small gong at the 9-minute mark to indicate that you need to wrap your story up and he had to go on stage once to get a story teller off the mic who just kept rambling long after the gong was sounded. But other than that everyone pretty much kept at or around 10 minutes, although for some it was harder to do than others.
I’m not a natural story teller. But over the last couple of years or so I’ve been actively and intentionally working on creatively sharing with others. I play music and sing and I do some spoken word as well. And of course I love to write. I’ve been skillfully pushing myself towards sharing more and more and working on letting go of my shyness and fear around doing so. It’s been a wonderful process. So this story telling adventure tonight was another big beautiful step in the direction of getting out of my comfort zone and sharing creatively with others.
The story I worked up was an experience I had from the 21-day retreat at Plum Village that my husband and I attended last summer (which is what originally kicked off my starting this blog). After some microphone adjustments were made, due to my small 5’2″ height in comparison to all of the tall dudes that went before me, here’s the story that I shared about perception:
So, I am what you might call a buddhist practitioner and in our tradition we have a saying that goes: Where there is perception, there is deception, and along those lines I have this little story to offer.
Last year my husband and I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a 21-day meditation retreat at our root monastery in the south of France called Plum Village which is also where our root teacher resides, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who’s often referred to as Thay by his students. And Thay means teacher in Vietnamese. Thay is a Vietnamese buddhist monk who has written many, many books and hundreds of poems and has led, and continues to lead, retreats all over the world. So my husband and I went to this retreat and stayed in Plum Village and it was our first trip overseas. And Plum Village is also home to many monks and nuns in our tradition and serves as a practice center for lay people as well, meaning folks who aren’t monks and nuns, with retreats and events led throughout the year in many different languages. Now, Plum Village is set up into three main hamlets, upper, lower and new hamlet and they are all on different tracts of land that aren’t connected. So upper and lower hamlet are a 45 minute walk apart and new hamlet was a 20 minute bus ride away. This particular retreat attracted around 800 people from all over the world and we were divided up among these hamlets for our lodging.
On one particular day towards the end of the retreat we had a celebration day and we were celebrating the 30 year anniversary of Plum Village. So all of us in lower and upper hamlets were bused to new hamlet where Thay gave a teaching, called a dharma talk, and then afterwards we had the opportunity to do some outdoor walking meditation, which is very slow and held in silence. And we went around the pond at new hamlet where the first lotus flowers of the season were in bloom, which were quite spectacular. After the walk we had lunch and then the celebratory event was held in which there was a gallery exhibit set up and some wonderful artisan cupcakes, which I assumed came from a local parisian bakery because of how fine crafted and intricate they were. And then there were these performances that were put together by some of the monastics.
So as the performances were getting ready I grabbed a seat on the grass, as it was an outdoor venue, by these cool, old stone buddha statues. And as everyone started sitting down my new friend and one of my roommates Clara, from the Netherlands, came to sit with me. And she and I wound up with not only a great vantage point of the performance area but also of Thay who was seated not far from us in the grass (facing to our right side) and most of the retreatants were sitting or standing behind him. And to see Thay so closely was a treat because to me one of the marks of a truly wonderful and wise teacher is one who is always teaching with their presence and doesn’t need to be saying anything. To simply watch him interact with his environment and the way he sits and moves is so beautiful to see so it was a gift to have such a clear, unobstructed sight of him, which wasn’t often easy to have during the course of the retreat with so many others around.
The first performance offered was given by some of the nuns who were acting out one of Thay’s poems that he had written. And over their monastic robes they had adorned them with other fabrics and feathers and some were dressed as trees and others as birds. As they acted out this poem so sweetly and gracefully over the speakers that had been set up came this nice, melodic, soft sounding oriental type of music. And once in a while over the music came this shrill bird call that drifted in at very odd seemingly displaced times. At first I thought to myself, “Hmmm, that’s a strange noise,” and then I let it go. But as it kept happening I started getting irritated with it and formed this inner dialogue with myself saying things like, “Didn’t they do a run through of this before the performance to know that that noise doesn’t sound good,” and , “Why don’t they stop doing that, it’s just awful!”
After a few minutes of mild irritation and distraction by this bird call my friend Clara nudges me and says, “Thay’s making that noise.” And I turned to her with a puzzled expression wondering what the heck she was talking about and she continued, “That bird noise, that’s Thay!” And I thought to myself, “How in the world could he be making that noise? It doesn’t make any sense.” Then she whispered, “Watch him.” So I turn my attention to him wondering what in the world I was looking for and after a couple of minutes I see him reach down to this little toy bird sitting in the grass beside him that was set up next to a microphone. Then Thay patted the bird and out came the bird call over the speakers. And on his face alighted this beautiful, sweet smile and from it I got such a sense of joy and ease and lightness and also a hint of mischief, that a Zen Master can sometimes have, as if to say, “Ha ha, no one knows I’m making this bird noise.” And in that moment my relationship to this bird call changed right away, like the flip of a switch and I went from being irritated and distracted to encountering this deep teaching. Right then I became aware of how distracted I had allowed myself to get, because I wasn’t aware of that at the time. Here I was on a bright sunny blue June day in the freakin’ south of France at this monastery with a Zen Master sitting just 30 feet away and I was allowing a bird call, of all things, to carry me away from the present moment.
This was a deep teaching and one that I hope to continue to carry with me moment by moment into the future as I continue on my path of practice. Because when I stop and take the time to look deeply I see how often I think I have everything figured out – I know why this person is doing that and why this situation is going like that and I think I have it all figured out when I really have no idea. Thay is fond of saying that 99% of our perceptions are incorrect and that figure is so astronomical to me that I can’t quite wrap my brain around it but I’m working on it. Because again, when I take the time to look deeply I can start to understand how often I create my own suffering based on my perceptions and how intertwined perception and deception really are – they go together and much like the in-breath and the out-breath cannot be separated.